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Toronto International Film Festival 2004 - UPDATE #7

Dead Birds
Directed by Alex Turner

Though Dead Birds is only sporadically effective, the film does deserve kudos for the simple fact that it's a horror movie that's actually scary (an increasingly rare thing nowadays). The storyline involves a group of Civil War-era bank robbers that decide to hole up in a creepy mansion after a big score, though - unbeknownst to them - said mansion has a troubled (read: bloody) history. Director Alex Turner infuses Dead Birds with a hefty dose of style, while the various performers - including Henry Thomas and Isaiah Washington - are surprisingly effective in their respective roles. The deliberate pacing of the movie does take a while to get used to, though, especially for viewers who like their horror movies fast and bloody. But the genuinely creepy images on display here (ie little kids with fangs for teeth) are disturbing enough to allow us to overlook the various flaws.

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Directed by Gotz Spielmann

Austria seems to be emerging as a hotbed for movies dealing with multiple characters, all of whom are miserable (ie Dog Days and now Antares). The film follows three separate storylines, all of which continually intersect with each other. For a while, Antares is oddly compelling; as a glimpse into the lives of some seriously disturbed characters, the film undoubtedly succeeds. But at a running time of around two hours, the movie ultimately feels oppressive. It certainly doesn't help that the last third of the movie is devoted to a character that simply isn't as intriguing as the first two; by the time the film begins dealing with him, we're ready to call it a night. Still, there's no denying the fact that writer/director Gotz Spielmann has done an effective job of presenting us with characters that feel authentic - though the film never quite becomes as compelling as Spielmann clearly wants it to be.

out of

Hotel Rwanda
Directed by Terry George

Don Cheadle has been delivering solid supporting work for years, but Hotel Rwanda marks the versatile actor's first shot at a lead role. It's an eye-opening performance that's unexpected - only because he's never had the chance to display this kind of range before. The film is set in 1994, the year that South African Hutus slaughtered almost one million Tutsis. Cheadle stars as Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who opened his hotel to Tutsi refugees - despite the growing danger to himself and his family. Hotel Rwanda has the distinct vibe of a traditional Hollywood epic, complete with sweeping music and melodramatic overtones, yet this somehow suits the extremely graphic and disturbing nature of the subject matter. The various atrocities that occur on screen are easier to take when you've got clearly defined heroes and villains, though Keir Pearson and George's screenplay occasionally goes overboard in this respect (ie a sequence in which Rusesabagina is literally tripping over bodies). Still, it's impossible to deny the power of this true story - particularly given Cheadle's Oscar-worthy performance.

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Directed by Saverio Costanzo

Though Private has its share of problems, the story is compelling enough that we're willing overlook such deficiencies. The film features a Palestinian family held hostage in their own home by Israeli soldiers, who have confined them to a small room on the first floor. The father wants to obey their orders and preaches pacifism to his family, while his teenaged son and daughter would rather fight - even if that means their death. Though the soldiers may seem to be one-dimensional villains, documentaries like Checkpoint and Death in Gaza have proved that that's just not the case. And though the film is badly acted and has minimal production values, there's still something riveting about the whole thing. The film is - surprisingly enough - occasionally quite suspenseful, as the rebellious daughter ventures into the forbidden section of the house. Director Saverio Costanzo does a nice job of keeping the tension high, ensuring that Private remains engaging throughout.

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The Assassination of Richard Nixon
Directed by Niels Mueller

Sean Penn has reached the point where with each successive performance, he actually manages to top himself - forcing movie reviewers to claim that his latest film features his best work to date. The Assassination of Richard Nixon is no different, and casts Penn as hapless sap Sam Bicke. Bicke's strong, unwavering feelings about the way things should be have cost him jobs, friends, and even his marriage. Though he's making an effort to conform by working as an office supplies salesman, we can tell that his anti-social tendencies are bubbling beneath the surface. The Assassination of Richard Nixon has been written and directed by Niels Mueller, who imbues the film with the vibe of a '70s movie - eschewing plot in favor of an emphasis on character development. As a result, by the time the film ends, Sam Bicke has become someone whose motives we completely understand (once he embarks on his plot to assassinate the then President - whom he perceives to be exactly what's wrong with America - it almost feels as though he has no choice but to do this). Though the film features a supporting cast that includes Naomi Watts and Don Cheadle, this is undeniably Penn's show from start to finish. The actor delivers a performance that's rich in its complexity, turning Bicke into more than just a second-rate Travis Bickle.

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Directed by Mick Davis

Modigliani is a period piece devoid of emotional resonance, despite a full-bodied performance by Andy Garcia. Garcia stars as famed painter Amedeo Modigliani, who alternates between feuding with Pablo Picasso (played by Omid Djalili) and contemplating marriage to his pregnant girlfriend (Elsa Zylberstein). The film has been written and directed by Mick Davis, and there's no denying that it looks authentic. Davis, along with cinematographer Emmanuel Kadosh, presents a vision of Paris that often resembles a painting - and like a painting, the film is visually impressive but that's about the extent of it. It doesn't help that Modigliani focuses on a very specific period in the artists life, which seems to consist entirely of his feud with Picasso (which is resolved incredibly poorly, with a slow clap of all things!) The only thing that keeps the film from becoming an all-out bore is Garcia's amazing performance, which is just as vital and exciting as we've come to expect from the actor (too bad the same can't be said of this sterile biopic).

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© David Nusair